Vehicle distraction systems: The 21st century cup holder

Guest Bloggers

Guest Bloggers | Mar 18, 2011

In posts this year, David Strayer and I have shined the spotlight on the contributions -- or lack thereof -- of both users and the government to the distracted driving problem. If you've seen TV ads recently, you know there is another contributor we haven't accounted for: automobile manufacturers.

In September of 2001, I was invited to attend the National Conference of State Legislatures Driver Focus and Technology Partnership Forum. The partners, in this case, were representatives from academia, government, telecommunications and automobile industries.

The most interesting discussions were those from the automobile manufacturers. They were actually arguing against distracted driving, but with an unusual twist: their focus was on what they called "carry-on devices," such as hand-held cell phones. What they suggested was that built-in technologies, such as GM's OnStar system, were acceptable alternatives and should be exempt from legislative efforts to reduce distracted driving.

Fast forward ten years and we can see why they took this position. Whether it's Ford's Sync system that allows you to search for restaurants while driving, or the button in the that allows you to see Facebook updates, it's clear that, pretty soon every new vehicle is going to have these "features."

These distractions are the cup holder of the 21st century: if your vehicle doesn't have them -- and plenty of them -- your next one will. Believe it or not, cup holders were a major driver of minivan sales in the mid-eighties. And where did that lead? Eventually to an all-out cup holder arms race, culminating in the ten cup holders in my little Honda Fit -- over two cups per passenger! (No kidding! Is that really necessary?) Vehicle information systems are quickly headed down the same road. They're become the marketing "must have" for manufacturers, and each company is trying to out-do the other.

In the distraction arms race, it is not entirely clear who is to blame: Detroit or Main Street. Consumers clearly want technology in cars, even though they know distraction is dangerous, much like we want cup holders even though we know that hot coffee can spill in our laps. It is a classic contest between our two brains: the frontal systems telling us what is rational and our hind brains telling us what "feels right." Sadly, the hind brain generally controls the purse strings ("Sell the sizzle, not the steak!"), and marketers know this. The sad truth is, distracting technologies also help to sell cars. If you're a manufacturer, cars are all about profit -- in fact, automobile companies have a fiduciary responsibility to make a profit. Until consumers demand otherwise, we need to get ready for a lot of new 21st century cup holders. For those of us who spend our days working to reduce deaths and injuries on our roads, that's an ominous sign.

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